Meet the New Boss: An Exclusive Interview with EIA President and CEO Sharon Kneiss

Getting to know Sharon Kneiss, the new head of the Environmental Industry Associations.

Allan Gerlat, News Editor

April 17, 2012

13 Min Read
Meet the New Boss: An Exclusive Interview with EIA President and CEO Sharon Kneiss

The Environmental Industry Associations named Sharon Kneiss as its new president and CEO April 12. She will replace longtime chief Bruce Parker beginning on June 1. In her first in-depth interview as the incoming executive, Kneiss talked with Waste Age about her plans for waste and recycling industry’s largest association.

Waste Age (WA): What most excited you about the opportunity to lead the Environmental Industry Associations? What convinced you to seek the position?

Kneiss: When I looked at what this industry represented and the benefits it offered in this country, I was very excited about it. Because they have such a good news message about what they do. They maintain clean communities, they help the public health, they promote recycling, they extract renewable fuels. It’s just a great message about what this industry is doing. It’s a real opportunity to promote and expand that message.

WA: How do you feel your background has prepared you for the challenge of leading EIA?

Kneiss: When I first contacted the recruiter about this position, the first thing I said to her was, “This is in my wheelhouse.” I have a lot of experience in environmental policy and advocacy; I have done a lot of waste management work. The most exciting part of what I’ve done recently that directly impacts my work with EIA is working with the American Chemistry Council on the plastics side, where we developed a very exciting program to address concerns with plastics. We partnered with Keep California Beautiful and the California Department of Parks and Recreation and developed a recycling program. We called it, “Plastics. Too Valuable To Waste. Recycle.” We coupled that with a major education and PR [public relations] program, and we provided recycling bins on the beaches and [in the] parks of Southern California. Then I also worked with Keep America Beautiful to look for opportunities to promote anti-litter, of the wise use of resources.

In addition to that I have more than 15 years of experience in executive management with associations. I see a lot of opportunities to look at the strategic direction for this organization. One thing I’m very excited about is the board – and I’ve met most of the members – they’re a very forward-thinking board. They’re looking to the future of the association. And they’re thinking strategically about where to take this organization, and that’s very exciting.

WA: You are coming in as somewhat of an outsider to the waste and recycling industry. What opportunities and challenges does that present?

Kneiss: I can step back and look at the opportunities, and I’m going to take that opportunity. One of the first things I’m going to do, and this is in my transition plan, is do a listening tour. This is very diverse industry. I want to go to members, potential members, former members, allied partners, perhaps even legislators, members of Congress and members of the media, and first of all listen but also probe and learn about how those constituencies view the organization, what the opportunities are, what the strengths are, what the challenges are, and what they see as the appropriate path going forward.  There’s a real opportunity to listen and learn and get a broad view of this industry.

And then use that to address: What are the strategic strengths of this association, where do we need to strengthen our goals and objectives, and where do we need to redirect. One of the best messages for this organization is its work on recycling. I think recycling is such an important area. The greater visibility we can give to the industry, I think that will serve them very well. And the opportunity to partner with other constituencies.

WA: What is your top priority for EIA going forward?

Kneiss: To work with the board to ensure a strong strategic plan that can take EIA to the next level. I think there’s a tremendous opportunity to promote the industry and make it more visible.

WA: The waste industry is becoming greener, with a growing emphasis on recycling and renewable energy. How do you see these trends changing the industry in the future?

Kneiss:  One thing I was told by the board in my interviews was that there’ll be a lot of turnover in fleets in the coming years, and a lot of that will be natural gas fuel. Clearly that’s a greener alternative, so that’s very exciting. I think the importance of recycling is only going to grow. I think statistics show that only half the residents in this country have curbside, so there’s a lot of opportunities to increase that program for the rest of the country and to promote greater recycling. And I think that is where we’re going to go.

And certainly the use of renewable fuel. One thing I learned in my many different incarnations in trade associations is that from an energy perspective, it’s really important to have a diversity of sources. One of those sources is gas extracted from landfills. I know the technology continues to improve, and that’s very exciting.

WA: With flow control and bag ban initiatives, the public sector seems to be getting more aggressive in controlling waste management. How should EIA respond to these issues?

Kneiss: The bottom line is wise use of resources. The tack that EIA and the industry is taking is: Let’s promote the wise use of resources, reuse if that’s appropriate, or appropriate disposal. I think that’s a very responsible approach to the waste.

Flow control -- it’s a challenge from an economic view, and I know EIA is very concerned about flow control. Part of wise use of resources is you need to balance how you handle the resources with economics. That’s an important part of sustainability. So I look forward to working with EIA and the board on addressing the flow control problem.

I believe, as does NSWMA [the National Solid Wastes Management Association], that flow control is a bad idea, because such restrictions can lead to higher costs for everyone. In addition, flow control presents no benefits for human health and the environment.

WA: The smaller haulers sometimes feel the big companies get much of the association’s attention. What do you see EIA offering the smaller companies?

Kneiss: Every member is critical to this association. And that’s what makes an association effective, that it represents the entire membership. As part of my listening tour I want to make sure that I talk to a lot of the smaller members, get to know them, understand what their issues are and look at opportunities to address their needs specifically and maintain an open line of communication. Continuing dialogue is so important. One thing I’m going to make sure of is that we have that continuing dialogue with all the members.

I also want to understand the diversity of the industry. I know this is a fragmented industry; there are a lot of players. I really need to understand the diversity of needs in order to effectively represent all of them.

WA: Safety has become a front-and-center issue for the industry in recent years. What does the industry still need to do in this area, and how best can EIA help?

Kneiss: I know EIA has instituted several safety programs and promotes the safety of the industry. When I become the present CEO I’d like to understand the effectiveness of those programs and work with the industry to address any continuing needs. I know safety is a high priority for this industry. Any injury is not acceptable. Whatever EIA can do to help members in that regard, we need to look at that.

WA: What is your assessment of EIA's membership and financing, and where does it need to go?

Kneiss: I think there are several areas of opportunity. I know EIA has a strong core membership, but I think there is significant opportunity to expand membership. There’s a broad universe out there of potential members, and we need to understand what that universe is, to understand what it is about EIA that would address them and bring them in. There’s tremendous opportunity. I’m very excited about the potential to expand membership and make sure it’s a committed membership within the organization.

Regarding finances, one thing we will be looking at is opportunities to build non-dues revenue within the organization. I haven’t studied the finances in depth, but I think there’s an opportunity to expand non-dues revenue. And so we’ll be looking at those opportunities. I think financially the association is in fine shape. I’ll be working with the board on what their goals are from the financial point of view going forward and what the opportunities are to build on strong finances.

WA: Do you see other issues in the industry that need more work?

Kneiss: I’m a data driven person. What I want to do is get in there and understand   what the opportunities are. When I do my listening tour and start looking at the goals and strategies I think I’ll understand a lot more clearly what the opportunities are. I’ll be looking at strategic direction and opportunities; clearly building more membership and expanding the good image of the industry. I have a list of several others but I really want to do more study before I come to any conclusions.

WA: Are there new or underdeveloped areas for the association that you want EIA to explore more deeply?

Kneiss: One thing that I think will serve EIA well is strategic partnerships. Where are there opportunities to work with strong partners to advance the goals of EIA. One thing I learned at the American Chemistry Council is that strategic partnerships are so critical to success because first, there’s an opportunity to bring more resources, but also to fill in gaps of the organization. So we will be looking quite closely at where are the opportunities for partnerships. And I think there are tremendous opportunities.

WA: How will your leadership style be similar to outgoing CEO Bruce Parker, and how will it be different?

Kneiss: I know Bruce quite well; he happens to be a neighbor, believe it or not. And so is Gene Wingerter (also a former NSWMA CEO). This is so odd; not only do we live in the same neighborhood, we practically live on the same block. I know Bruce is well loved and respected by his staff, as he is by the membership. He’s a very collegial manager. I can’t tell you how my management style will differ from his because I haven’t had the opportunity to work directly with Bruce in his management capacity.

I can tell you how what my management style is: I’m strategic, I’m data driven, I have high expectations, I believe in companies with clear plans and tools to get the job done, and rewarding staff for good work. I actually vary my management style depending on the needs of the staff. Sometimes it’ll be coaching, sometimes directing – it really depends on the situation.

WA: Overall, how do you see the industry’s future and EIA’s role in it?

Kneiss: I think there’s going to be a continued need for the tremendous services this industry has to offer. I’m sure there were challenges from the economic downturn. Those challenges still exist, but I believe this is a tremendously viable industry. We need to continue to offer those services. Recycling will only increase in the future, and that is inextricably linked to service of this industry.

WA: Any last thoughts?

Kneiss: I’d just reiterate my pleasure to be able to work with such an important industry, and I look forward to working with the board, the staff and the membership.  I am pleased to be attending WasteExpo and hope to meet a lot of members and potential members. I look forward to my transition where I am going to immerse myself in the industry and learn as much I can.

How the Pick Was Made

The selection of the Environmental Industry Associations’ (EIA) new president and CEO perfectly followed the organization’s script – a very detailed and carefully crafted script.

“Early on the board of trustees settled on a process to be followed, and we really stayed true to that process the whole time,” says EIA Chairman Charlie Appleby. “Once you commit to the process, it’s not that hard.”

Appleby, who also is chairman and CEO of Jacksonville, Fla.-based Advanced Disposal Services Inc., headed a four-person search committee that helped choose the association’s new chief, Sharon Kneiss.

Appleby says in an interview that the board interviewed four executive recruiting firms, and settled on Alexandria, Va.-based Association Strategies Inc. With that firm the board developed a detailed, 11-page profile of the position. “That was a template that we used to sort through the candidates we received,” Appleby says.

Through referrals, Association Strategies’ database and other methods, EIA received more than 150 applications. The recruiting firm narrowed the field down to 30 or 35 people. Association Strategies did at least three interviews with those candidates, some in person, some by phone. The firm narrowed the group down to 10.

Appleby says during this period the recruiting firm kept the search committee updated, providing resumes and summaries (though not names) of the  interviews as well as getting feedback from the search committee.

The search committee took over with the final 10 candidates and narrowed it to six. The committee traveled to Washington and interviewed each of the six, for an hour and a half each, with the committee having a 30-minute discussion afterward, Appleby says.

The committee narrowed it to a final two and provided similar background packages to the board. Now the board – 10 members at the time – went to Washington and interviewed the finalists over two days, with two separate sessions with each candidate.

“And then, based on that, we had a discussion and came to a conclusion and selected the new CEO,” Appleby says.

He characterizes the candidate pool as an extremely strong field. “It wasn’t an easy task to narrow it to six, and then it was very hard to narrow it to two. And then a challenge for choosing between the two,” he says. “Once we got down to the final 10 we had a very high quality pool of candidates, all eminently qualified and quality individuals.”

The extensive work put into the position description gave everyone a clear blueprint of what to look for, he says. “From those final interviews we sort of reached a conclusion. Not only from the answers themselves but how they were answered. Presentation skills, people skills, management experience, environmental background – all weighed into it.”

Everyone, he says, came to be comfortable with the choice. “At the final stage, it was a pretty easy decision. Either [of the two finalists] would have been a fine CEO. I don’t think we could have failed with either one. We picked the one the board thought would do the best job for us.”

He described the committee as “extremely satisfied. We really were happy, one, with the process we selected, and two, we felt like it played out as well as could have been expected.” – Allan Gerlat, News Editor

About the Author(s)

Allan Gerlat

News Editor, Waste360

Allan Gerlat joined the Waste360 staff in September 2011 as news editor. He was the editor of Waste & Recycling News for the first 16 years of its history, and under his guidance the publication won 27 national and regional awards.

Before Waste & Recycling News, Allan worked at another Crain Communications publication, Rubber & Plastics News, which covers rubber product manufacturing. He began with the publication as associate editor and eventually became managing editor, a position he held for nine years.

Allan is a graduate of Ohio University, where he earned a BS in journalism. He is based in Sagamore Hills, in northeast Ohio.

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